Does Race Matter for Sushi Chefs?

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Photo by Joshua Rappeneker/FlickrCC

Say you walk into a sushi bar in America hungry for an authentic Japanese meal and you're faced with a choice. There's an empty seat in front of a chef who looks Japanese. There's another empty seat in front of a chef who has blond hair and freckles. Which seat would you choose? What if the choice was between a chef who looks Japanese and one who is African-American?

I'm hoping you'll comment on this question, because I'm curious to hear your answers. Are you a diehard devotee of Japanese-only sushi chefs, or are you open to a chef of any ethnicity? Have you had an experience that might have changed your mind?

American sushi chefs seem more willing to strike up conversations across the sushi bar, for an altogether friendlier experience that feels, weirdly, more Japanese.

Let me explain why I'm asking, and why I produced an article and slideshow for The Atlantic documenting the growing phenomenon of American sushi chefs who aren't Asian. My interest in this question goes back to the three years I lived in Japan.

In Japan, I came to love the communal bar or counter that dominated most sushi restaurants and neighborhood eateries, where the pleasure of company and good conversation--with the chef, and among different groups of customers--enhanced the pleasure of the food. It was almost like having instant friends to go with your meal. The chef's job wasn't just to feed us but to entertain us and encourage us to try new ingredients and dishes.

By contrast, when I returned to the States it seemed to me that when Americans go out to eat, we covet privacy and personal choice.

Having to chit-chat with anyone else seems like a burden, so we sit at individual tables rather than at a bar. We generally order only what we want from the menu, rather than taking suggestions from a chef. I felt we were missing out.

What does this have to do with whether or not your sushi chef has freckles? Most Japanese and other Asian sushi chefs in the U.S.--not all, certainly, but most--have struck me as reluctant to make the effort to recreate the sociable style of Japanese eating at their restaurants here in the States. Indeed, quite the opposite: many have earned reputations as short-tempered dictators, like Nozawa, the infamous "Sushi Nazi" of L.A.

By contrast, the growing number of American sushi chefs I've encountered have seemed to me more able and willing to strike up conversations across the sushi bar, enthusiastically educating customers about the mysteries of the cuisine they love and suggesting unusual, and more traditional, items to try--an altogether friendlier experience that to me feels, weirdly, more Japanese.

I think this is a huge boon to sushi in America. But these American sushi chefs have told me they face discrimination from American customers, who assume that because they're not Japanese or even Asian, they don't know what they're doing. Of course, there are good American chefs and not-so-good American chefs, but in my experience this applies to chefs who look Asian, too. What say you?